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Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

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Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby Michael » Sat Nov 28, 2009 2:26 am

How can you train a parrot using positive reinforcement without using weight or food management and still achieve motivation, focus, and results?

What non-food elements drive motivation? Why should the parrot put effort into learning complicated new tricks if food is readily available all day and it is not hungry (naturally it satisfies its hunger on free feed when it can). Why do people support free feeding parrots? Few other organisms including wild parrots and ourselves actually free feed. Most have a few meals a day that are controlled and limited. Wild parrot meals are limited by how much they can forage in a single day with a balance for how much energy they spend seeking it.

There are opponents to controlled feeding and weight management. What are the arguments against food management and why do they suggest free feeding? Does anyone free feed their parrot and have greater success than weight managing the same parrot for reward? Does anyone even get equal results? Does free feed based training diminish the frequency of response as well as performance compared to weight management based training?
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Re: Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby Manziboy » Sat Nov 28, 2009 10:19 pm

Michael, here is the same reply I emailed to you. I don't know that much about it, but here is my opinion.
I have heard of quite a few people using the free feeding method. The idea is to give their regular diet as free feed (pellets) and then offer a high value treat during training sessions. The reason this works is because people use a parrot's drive to please. They learn to recall out of habit, not hunger and so they respond even if they aren't hungry. They respond for praise, and for a treat. I tried this with Manzi and it didn't work quite right. I know the idea should work. Outside, when Manzi is flying around he will often fly back to me, even if I don't have a treat but just because he wants to be with him and get some scratches. It is the same inside. Manzi often wants to be with me. I'm not sure how to correctly transfer this to training, but with some parrots and under the right circumstances it seems possible. I don't think it is good to just free feed to begin with. Maybe instead leave unlimited pellets in foraging toys so the parrot cannot just eat as much as it wants because it takes a lot of work to get their food. Then, treats are even more valuable. I don't really have any foraging toys, but one of these days I would like to try some.

I have also seen people use toys effectively as a recall, but it was not very consistent. The Macaw was not recalling by seeing the treats, so the handler showed it a toy and then it flew over.
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Re: Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby localpigeon » Mon Nov 30, 2009 9:54 pm

My birds are on a pellet diet during the day. The cockatiels will work well for a seed even if they are full. The budgie needs to be a little hungry to move.

I know that animals can with time attach more value to doing the trick or performing than to the treat itself. This is how they train dolphins apparently to retrieve fish. They prefer their trainers' praise to the food they've just caught. Or something along those lines.

But the initial training is done with food and weight management.
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Re: Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby Mona » Fri Dec 04, 2009 2:19 pm

Hi Michael:

Long discussion. As you know, I free feed. I also train. I tried putting Phinney on a weight management schedule to improve her recall so I had some practice with it. To some extent, it worked....but I also saw some subtle side effects.

There are a lot of aspects to this discussion, so first, I'd like to talk about flying a bird outside. If you are flying a bird outside, there is much greater risk than if you are working with the bird in a safe environment. Weight management gives a trainer leverage. It's about the only leverage a trainer can have for outside flight because the bird can fly away. If I flew outside, I would take weight management much more seriously than I do now.

Can a bird be trained if you free feed them. Absolutely. I have three birds that all recall and do prop tricks, hand tricks and will all perform in unusual and varied environments (such as retirement homes, stage shows, kids stuff, and bird club fly days) and this without the use of weight management so I have to say absolutely, you can train without using weight management.

Why does it work? I guess you'd have to ask the birds (grin). I DO use favorite treats if I am working with a behavior that the bird would not be inclined to do naturally. Some behaviors are just natural and you can capture them easily without food reinforcement. An example of this is Babylon's flyabout. She has been doing this all of her life and I don't ever reinforce this with food....ever. When I take Babylon to the fly building or an unfamiliar environment, she will fly big loops. I don't control the number of loops she does. This depends on her energy level. Sometimes, she will fly six big loops or more and sometimes, only one....but she consistently flies big loops, locates me and flies back to me. We do this almost as a team. It's really fun for both of us. What is her reinforcement?

I guess there are a lot of levels of reinforcement. First, I think she likes to fly. It's just fun for her. Second, she's been doing this for so many years, she's conditioned to do this so it's natural for her. Third, I think there is an element of insecurity once she is in the air that she might lose sight of me. She hates losing sight of me (even in the house) and for that reason, she consistently seeks me out and flies to me. Is this innate to her species? I don't know. I suspect that there is something natural about this but can't say for sure. This is probably why she flies loops. It's like she's checking out the territory without losing sight of me.

Will the training methods that I use on Babylon work consistently for all birds and all people? No. Not all birds fly like Babylon. Bottomline is that reinforcers vary and are individual depending on the trainer, environment and the bird.

So....it's easier to teach universal training using food as a reinforcer. Weight management just ups the reinforcement value of the food at the time you want to train so that also makes it easier for the trainer; however, training can certainly be accomplished on many levels without using weight management and you certainly can vary the reinforcers.

Are there disadvantages to weight management? I think so. I think that there are health concerns. While obesity is certainly a problem and a health concern restricting the diet will also effect hormones and the immune system. Also, if you create a condition of scarcity you risk having the animal over eat. It's like the yo yo effect of dieting that we all run up against. I think the jury is still out on this and we have to look at the long term effects to say any thing for sure. The youngest bird in my flock will be eight years old next year. The others are all over 10 years old and they are all healthy.

I also think that if a trainer focuses too much on weight management, they can miss out on all of the other subtle variables that effect training. A lot of things effect training: Focus, distractions, flock dynamics...to name a few off the top of my head.

Most important, before any body starts a training plan they have to look at their goals. What is it that you want to get out of training? Those goals can change as a person's life and their companions mature and change.

I have different goals than a professional trainer or even a free flyer. At this stage, my goals are more about learning to live comfortably with my birds as naturally as possible so that they remain interactive, healthy, responsive companions and don't drive the rest of my family crazy...LOL. I want to stay married.

To that end, I work hard on reinforcing behaviors that I do want and modifying behaviors that are unwanted using a variety of reinforcers. I also think that free feeding the birds is more natural for them. I don't want them always completely focused on me....actually, I would rather that they were NOT so focused on me since I have five of them!

I also believe that restricting food can lead to more aggressive behaviors for the Senegals. I never want to "up the aggression level" ever. I am always working to keep aggressive energies as low as possible in a flock situation. Honestly, Babylon is so motivated to perform directed behaviors that I do not need to do ANY THING to up her motivation. She has been free fed all of her life. If I up her motivation, she absolutely gets aggressive.....

To me: Training is behavior management via directed play and learning. It is about communication. You and the bird are communicating to each other like a dance. One minute one leads, the other minute the other leads. Weight management can or may not be part of that. The universe is bigger than that.

Another reason why I am not into weight management is because I admit that although my birds do a lot of prop tricks, right now, I am not highly motivated to perfect the prop behaviors so that they are consistent on cue for the purposes of doing a show. I am happy with "sloppy" tricks, mostly because I am more interested in training as a means to manage the flock and when I do little shows, I do them for fun and nobody cares if we are perfect. If the bird doesn't want to do the behavior in that particular moment, we just laugh and try again another time.

I also know that it would maybe take me a week to get the behaviors sharp and on cue with practice if I was motivated. You don't lose trained behaviors. They will become sloppy if you don't practice...but you can get them back pretty easy. Birds have exceptional memories. Their memories are much better than dogs.

When I used to consistently take Phinney to retirement homes (once or twice a week) she would go into a routine of her prop tricks. Again, this was done when she was being free fed. This was my schedule: I would pull out a small cart and set up her prop tricks on it. We would first go through the prop tricks....basketball hoop, stacking rings, mailbox, puzzle, etc. for four or five different "oldsters". I would wheel the cart around and she would do the tricks. I would reinforce each trick with a nut. After about a half hour or so, I would see that she was getting full of treats so I would take her around and have her perch on the oldsters arms. Again, she was reinforced for this by giving her a nut. She was also reinforced for hand tricks: Wave, say "beak" on cue, snap her fingers, etc. I did this specifically so that she would view the entire activity "going to a retirement home and visiting oldsters" as something fun for her despite the fact that this was a chaotic and unnatural environment.

It was fun for her and today, she can be a real ham if she thinks she gets to be the center of attention.

The nuts were reinforcement but there was another reinforcer for her: Undivided attention.

Also, if she was particularly slow on a certain day, I would use play as a reinforcer. She likes to chase paper airplanes so I would make sure every body's hands were out of the way, and then toss a paper airplane for her to chase, catch and rip up. The play reinvigorated her and I still use it on days when a treat is not an effective reinforcer.

Reinforcers abound. They are absolutely part and parcel of every day life with our parrots. The trick is being observant and recognizing them and draft a plan (rather consciously or not) as to how to use them to manage the birds.

Having said all of that, food and weight management is a whole lot easier to teach people who do not have experience with the birds.

Fun topic. Gotta go....

Thanks.
Mona in Seattle
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Re: Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby tina » Fri Jan 08, 2010 5:26 pm

hello all! this is my first post on the forum, and I have to say how excited I was to find this site! It has some great info and from seeing Kili doing tricks on youtube, I am on my way to training my 10 y/o senegal Salvador.
I wanted to make some comments, and ask some questions...I am hoping you can shed some light on a few things...
I started the clicker training. It has been successful so far, and Sal within one short session already knows that she has to touch the stick in order to get her a treat. I am trying to make her walk around things to get it at the moment. I have encountered a few hic-ups and would love your feedback.
Well for one, I am hoping that this training will satisfy Sal, as she is very intelligent, but is a bit aggressive with everyone EXCEPT me. I can pretty much do anything with her and she is fine. She acts like she likes ppl, but when put on them, she will draw blood. So as you may imagine, noone wants to pick her up anymore :( Lately, (in the past 6 months maybe) she has started screaming. Not just a fit, but will scream all day! She was always a quiet bird...so its a bit frustrating! She wants my husband to be in the room, or to hear him whistle...even though, he cant hold her!! haha. She adores him from a distance i guess! Well...I was hoping the training would help her to overcome the screaming by fulfilling her in a different way. Maybe even being able to interact physically with others!
I let her feed all day. I do this, for one, because it had never occurred to me to do it any different. And two because i work during the day. I do not want her to go hungry because i get home late from work. I feed her roudybush, which i do so she will not get too fat. She loves it, and I also give her "birdy bread" which i make at home for her out of the roudybush pellets and fruits/veggies. (if you would like the recipe i would be happy to post it! i make a batch and freeze it for future use!) so she has that with other fruits/veggies every day. Since beginning the training, i have stopped putting treats in her cage. I was concerned because i want her to forage, and Mona suggested a great idea to hide the pellets! (again, never dawned on me) Is there some sort of schedule you know that working ppl do in regards to training...ie do training in the a.m or do training in the p.m after they get home? and is there any advantage/disadvantage to that. Also, how long do you do your sessions for? I dont like to really feed her a lot of seed, so I am a bit nervous about doing a long session as the reward is a sunflower seed. (i dont think she would do it for anything less than that! unless it was my husbands interaction to her)
This is a lengthy reply, but I guess my questions are...how long should sessions be (gemerally speaking) and what tricks have you guys done for birds that only want the seed as rewards? Also, is there maybe something I am not thinking of in regards to feeding/training with me being gone all day?
I am looking to start trick training, and I am still not exactly sure how to do it yet! I am filtering through the site to hopefully find the video or explanation of my next step!
thanks again for the site! its awesome!
tina
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Re: Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby Michael » Fri Jan 08, 2010 6:00 pm

First off, this explains how to do target training and how to use target training to allow different people to hold an aggressive parrot: How to Step Up Without Biting Article.

I only feed Kili twice a day. Once in the morning after she wakes up at 10AM. I either give her a pre-measured meal or a timed meal. If I have time to take the food bowl back out I'll give more food and take it away in a certain amount of time. If I have to leave, I will leave a predetermined amount. Then she does not eat at all until I train her at 9PM. I train her anywhere from 10 minutes to 40 minutes depending on how well she is doing. Then shortly after 10PM I put her in the cage and feed her unlimited vegetables until she is done and then cover her for bed. Notice with my method I do not have to be home mid day. Please make sure you fully understand this method and frequently weigh your bird or you could starve it. It will vary from parrot to parrot and owner to owner so you have to research this and work out your own feeding schedule.

As for the screaming, target training probably will not help that. The best thing to do is create an alternative sound for your parrot to make in place of screeching. To us the most pleasant (or least unpleasant) sound would be talking so teach your parrot to talk. I discuss how I taught Kili to say hello to get my attention rather than screech.
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Re: Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby tina » Mon Jan 11, 2010 10:25 pm

thanks for the advice! I am interested in the method you discussed and will look for some more information before I begin withholding/rationing food from her. :) I have been working on waving, and she pretty much has it...although i have to give her my finger que to get her to do it. I am sure that in a few days, she will be waving on a verbal que! It is exciting, ill have to admit!
What treat do you give Kili when you are training...i realize that birds dont always like the same thing, but was curious as it dosent look like a sunflower seed. I am a little concerned that Sal will become overweight because of the seeds I am giving her. I have supplemented some of the rewards with praise instead :P (im hoping that will work out just as well!)
I appreciate all your advice...like i said before, it is exciting!
I am going to work on the talking...she does talk a lot, but NEVER on que. LOL. that is going to be a tough one!
have a great day! :senegal:
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Re: Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby Michael » Mon Jan 11, 2010 10:34 pm

First off, I doubt that the bird will pick up the verbal in cue in just a few days. In the earlier phases of parrot training, it took far longer to teach the verbal cue that the actual trick or hand cue. Now, I taught Kili how to flip over on hand or verbal cue in under 3 days. However, when I was starting out, I worked several weeks on each trick. Another problem you will run into is adding the second verbal cue. Most likely the parrot will try to do the wave on any verbal cue. Just vocalization from you will become the cue and it will not pay attention to the subtle distinction of words. After you teach the second trick, it is quite likely it will forget the first trick and will get the verbal cue mixed up between the tricks. They are very good at learning visual cues but verbal cues are a whole other level. Just keep that in mind.

Since Kili is on a pellet diet, just about anything is a treat for her. As a basis for treats I just bought a typical parrot seed mix and anything from that mix is a treat for her. That includes sunflower seeds, saflower seeds, dried corn, dried peppers, colored, and uncolored pellets. There are probably other seeds in there I don't know the name of. Also I'll use peanuts, almonds, oatmeal, pasta, apple, and banana as a treat. She only eats pellets and vegetables in her cage. So the tastier stuff is a smaller part of her diet and a treat.
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Re: Free Feed Based Positive Reinforcement Training

Postby windharper » Tue Jan 12, 2010 12:45 am

I free feed also. Believe it or not, with all of the talking Tamber does and how quickly he learns, he gets nothing more than verbal positive reinforcement from me. I do use pine nuts for physical training and only as a reward. Meanwhile in his cage is always some pelleted food. Once in the morning I will give him something fresh (apple, carrot, etc.) and once in the evening he'll get something like mango or some other dried fruit.

Mona's comment about the possibility of a Senegal becoming more aggressive when food is not readily available was interesting because as I mentioned in another post, I do not have an aggressive Senegal. Could it be that Tamber is not very aggressive because he is free fed? Or perhaps because he is well socialized? Perhaps a combination? Interesting thought.

As for Teyla who came to me quite wild and anti-social. I couldn't find any type of food she'd really go after, least to say take from me personally. I've never mentioned this, but I am a degree holding teacher and I double majored in psychology in college. So I was very disturbed that I couldn't find anything to use to positively reinforce any type of desired behavior in Teyla.

I finally shared my problem with a breeder friend I know in another state. She told me to get Teyla out of her cage in into a safe neutral training room and to simply talk nicely to her and that even though Teyla had no use for humans, she would respond. Well, this friend has been in the bird business for over 35 years. I figured she had to know what she was talking about.

So, I set a T-perch in the master bath, close the lid on the commode and delivered Teyla in her new training room in her travel cage. (Getting her from her cage into a travel cage was a fiasco the first few times.) I chose the bathroom because I could close the door and not have to chase her very far. She was very nervous in the beginning. I put on big leather gloves to protect my hands.

I would put her close to the perch. If she stood there, I praised her. If she flew away, I waited till after she landed and calmed down. I would talk to her softly. Then I would retrieve her and put her back on the perch. Within a rather short time, she understood that I wanted her on the perch. I then moved to teaching her to step up. She'd fly away the first few times, but, again eventually realized what I wanted her to do. By the third session, she was stepping up easily, without flying away and without biting. She also would ride my hand out of the bathroom and back to her cage when we were done. All she got was my verbal praise.

Her metamorphosis has been tremendous since her nestmate is gone. She eventually decided she liked millet. So now all training sessions get my verbal praise plus millet. I will only give her millet as a reward and not part of her daily diet. She is an entirely different bird from what she was when I first got her! That this transition all began without anything but verbal praise still astounds me! Having said all that, I have just started attempting some clicker trainer with Teyla. I am open to see what happens with her.


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